Holy Bartenders

I really value and respect a good bartender.  They remember your name.  They remember your drink.  They can keep a dozen orders going all at the same time and the best ones can manage it all with great aplomb.  All of this is in addition to the work they do listening, offering advice and generally caring about the people they serve. It’s not a stretch to say the best bartenders are holy.

No, not like this:

More like this:photo-small

With that in mind here is a condensed version of my most recent sermon.


I have a lot of respect for people who change careers and reinvent themselves.  Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I weren’t a priest.  Let’s face it, seminary training doesn’t really prepare you with many other marketable skills.  I can’t fix a car or write a legal brief.  I don’t know how to start an IV or create a comprehensive lessons plan to teach 4th graders about history.  But there is one job that I think could be an easy fit.  I could become a bartender.

Think about it… What skills does a bartender need?  Well, you have to be good with people.  You have to listen to their problems and sometimes offer them advice.  I can do that.  You have to be organized and able to multitask.  I can do that.  You have to be able to diffuse conflict or even settle an argument.  I can do that too.  And when it comes to actually serving drinks, well it just so happens I know a little bit about beer.

All this overlap might explain why so many bartenders feel like they often wind up doing the work of a priest.  They deal with people who are lonely, sad or upset on a daily basis.  Any bartender worth their salt knows how to listen as a patron unburdens themselves after a tough day.  How many times have they had to hear a confession or offer advice on how to try and save a relationship?   I would bet that more than a few have even stopped a person from hurting themselves or someone else.  It’s fair to say that a barkeep has the chance to do some holy work if they are so inclined.

The overlap between priests and bartenders isn’t new.  In fact, in today’s Gospel Reading we find that Jesus himself might have helped blur the line between the two professions when he turned water into wine.  Let me set the scene.   We find Jesus as a guest at a wedding when the unthinkable happens.  The wine runs out.  Now wine was extremely important in Jesus’ time.  Why?  First because drinking water could make you sick.  Wine was a much safer choice, thus an essential part of everyday life.  Of course given what I see from some of your Facebook posts, not much has changed.

But wine was also important for religious purposes.  This was particularly true when it came to weddings.  Not only did it play an important role when it came to enhancing the guests’ enjoyment, wine also had great religious significance.  It was seen as a sign of G-D’s blessing.  To run out of wine then would not simply leave you with disappointed guests… it was a serious faux pas.

It is in such scandalous circumstances that we find Jesus today.  The wedding is in full swing yet the wine has run out.  Yet Jesus barely seems to notice.  Indeed, it is only after some prodding from his mother that he gets involved.  And so it is that rather reluctantly Jesus steps up to the task and enables both the good times and the blessings to continue to flow.

That’s all very nice but what does it mean?  Jesus doesn’t say.  In fact, the only thing that Jesus is clear about is that it is not yet his time to go public in his role as the Messiah.  Indeed, apart from his mother, a few of the servants and later, his disciples, no one seemed to know what occurred.  So apart from the demonstration of Jesus’ miraculous power, what, if anything does it mean for us today?

Let’s start with the fact that Jesus’s first miracle was both largely anonymous and devoid of any overtly religious trappings.  Think about it.  He never makes a show out of what he was doing nor does he appear to take any credit for it.  Moreover, he never invokes the name of G-D nor does he even do so much as bless the water.  So what’s the point?

Perhaps what Jesus is trying to show us is that miracles can happen regardless of whether or not we recognize them.  G-D acts in our lives, not just in obvious ways or through obvious people like priests… G-D also acts through mundane or even the profane circumstances or people.

Unfortunately, when this happens, we, just like the steward in the Gospel, tend to miss the fact that a miracle just occurred.  When Jesus’ wine is brought to him, he tastes just how wonderful it is but has no idea where it has come from. He mistakes it as a sign that the groom has mistakenly kept the best wine until late in the game.  Not once does he even suspect that the wine is a sign of G-D’s presence and blessing.

How often do we miss out on seeing what G-D is doing for us because it comes, not in church or from a priest or from reading the Bible but just in the course of daily life?  Maybe the whole point of this water into wine thing is to help us see that miracles happen all the time. G-D moves among us and intervenes in our lives in the most unexpected ways.  Yet we are too wrapped up in the problems of the moment or in trying to get through the day to even notice.  If we were just more open to that sacred possibility, how many more times might we find that the hand of G-D has touched us… helping us get through a crisis or deal with a problem or perhaps even helping find a respite of joy?

The truth is that G-D works just as much through the caring shown by a cop or a teacher or our dry cleaner as G-D does through the church.  Yet we are far more likely to give thanks to G-D when that blessing comes through our priest as opposed to our bartender.  Maybe the whole point of the Miracle at Cana is that we shouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment.  Jesus takes ordinary water and turns it into wine.   In the same way G-D takes ordinary people and makes them instruments of healing and blessing.  The question is that when these miracles happen, will we take them as a happy coincidence or will we recognize them for what they truly are?

The good news is that either way G-D will continue to reach out and bless your life.  The worst that can happen is that you enjoy that blessing unaware and go on with your day.  Yet how much more meaningful might those blessings be if we saw the hand of G-D at work when they happened?

When the guests drank the wine at Cana, there is no doubt they enjoyed it.  It was the good stuff after all.   But imagine if they knew where it came from?  Imagine if they knew just how truly special it was?  That wine would have done much more than brighten their day… it would have changed their lives because they would have known that G-D was in their midst and was there blessing them.

Now think about your life.  Think about times in which someone, especially someone unexpected, touched your life and blessed you when you needed it most.  That was G-D at work. Yet like the steward at the wedding, you probably didn’t know it.   But what if you did?  What if you saw that act of kindness or compassion for what it truly was- a blessing?  How much more joy and hope might you find if you remembered that G-D is not limited to sacred places or people?   Such preconceptions only limit our lives, but they cannot limit G-D.  And in the end, the blessing we need might come not from our priest but from a nurse, a mechanic, a crossing guard or even from our bartender.


Saints of the Suds: Katharina von Bora

It’s been a long time since I wrote about one of the great holy women or men who had an association with beer.  Today a new one was brought to my attention and so I couldn’t wait to share her with you.kathvonbora         

Of course most of us know that the great reformer and theologian Martin Luther also had a great love of beer.  He once jokingly wrote that, “Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long, does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven! Thus, let us drink beer!” But, did you know that his favorite beer was brewed not by some monastery or town brewery but by his wife, Katharina von Bora?

Lutheran friends may already be familiar with her since her “saint” day is December 20th and thus is fast approaching.  A little quick research revealed that she was in fact an incredible woman who well deserves to be more broadly known and admired.  Katharina became a nun early.  After becoming enamored of the Reform movement and fleeing the  convent, she turned down a number of other suitors before surprising everyone and marrying the older Luther.


The Luthers lived in the Black Cloister, the former home of the Augustinian monks in Wittenberg. Katharina supported her family by gardening, making wine, raising livestock, and through use of the monastery’s right to brew, made some mean beer. She was a force to be reckoned with rising at 4 am in the summer and 5 am in the winter to oversee the workings of their large home and farm. Luther and Katharina had six children and adopted eleven more. At any given time, university students, refugees and homeless relatives lived with them.

Katharina’s prowess was not lost on Luther who showed her great respect.  He is reputed to have said, “In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.” and, “At home I have good wine and beer and a beautiful wife, or (shall I say) lord.”             

6cfaf4f989610f44d77da60cbf22dc3b_320x320Katharina’s importance has not been entirely overlooked.  She has graced a postage stamp and had Danish brewery name a beer in her honor.  So, please join me in raising a pint or, more appropriately, ein maß (mass), to Katharina von Bora.  Prost!

Beer and Christmas Carols

This Friday, December 4th, marks the official Beer and Carols release party for Gingerbread Jesus.  Join us at Barren Hill Tavern starting at 6:30 to sample this year’s GBJ as well as a a very limited amount of last year’s version.  I will also be blessing a firkin of Gingerbread Jesús- GBJ aged with Mexican chocolate and anchos that I grew and smoked myself.  We will be singing Christmas Carols while sipping away at some GBJ.  Hope to see you there!GBJ

Thanks to Brian Biggs for the artwork. and Erin Wallace and Dave Wood for making it happen.   #gingerbreadjesus.



Breaking The Christmas Seal

downloadI normally observe and enforce a strict moratorium on all things Christmas until the day after Thanksgiving.  That means no Christmas music or decorations of any kind.  Normally it would also apply to Christmas beers as well.  But today I will make an exception.  That’s because today Gingerbread Jesus 2015 goes on tap.

It was a lot of fun coming up with the concept, but it has been even more fun making it.  This year we kept the same basic Belgian Dubbel base but doubled the amount of fresh ginger and made sure we used whole cinnamon and fresh nutmeg. But never fear- based on a taste a few weeks ago, the spices do not overwhelm the beer.  Last year everyone agreed that the ginger was too subtle so we hope this helps make this already wonderful beer even better. It goes on tap today at Barren Hill Tavern.  The official launch party with Christmas Carols will be next Friday, December 4th and will include a keg of last year’s GBJ and a firkin of Gingerbread Jesús- which will be enhanced with cacao and ancho chilies.  Hope to raise a toast with you there.

gingerbread jesus

In the meantime I wish you a blessed Thanksgiving with family and friends.


This is Rachel.  Rachel is awesome.  She raises bees and chickens.  She makes her IMAG00762own pickles and preserves.  She is also a really, really nice person.  But Rachel has one fatal flaw.  She hates beer.  I don’t mean that she just doesn’t like it.  I mean she flat out hates it.

But you know what.  I refused to believe it.  Because like you, I know that  beer covers a really, really big range of styles and flavors and I was pretty certain that she just hadn’t found the beer that was right for her yet.

So with a little planning we decided to put this theory to the test.  At the latest gathering of The Franklin Society (our parish beer/homebrew club) we assembled an epic lineup which I was certain would get Rachel to rethink her opinions about our favorite beverage.


We tried to cover all the bases.  We started with a straight forward beer- Half Acre Daisy Cutter.  No bret, not wet hops, no bourbon barrels, no blood orange, no rosemary.  You know- the kind of think you drink and say- “Yep, that’s beer.”  This was not for Rachel but rather to help the rest of us to establish a baseline for the kind of flavors that we knew she didn’t like.

From there we moved into lighter, fruitier and/or sour flavors.  This included Steigl Grapefruit Radler, Lindermans Framboise, Lancaster Strawberry Wheat, an Oude Gueuze, DFH Namaste, Fraoch Heather Ale and a Pear Saison from Tired Hands.

We had some measured success here.  Rachel didn’t hate the Radler, Framboise or the Gueuze.  She didn’t like them particularly but they didn’t lead her to grimace and dump the rest.  Interestingly the veteran beer lovers had no use for the Radler or Framboise because there was nothing beery about them.  We were surprised that she still picked up strong “beer” flavors from the Namaste which we thought might have also been more appealing since it was so light and spiced.  Yet to her it was still bitter.

The next round got into some heavier flavors and higher alcohol and included DFH Positive Contact, Troegs LaGrave Triple, a Lemoncello IPA from Siren/Hill Farm/ Mikeller, Young’s Double Chocolate Stout, DFH Noble Rot and DFH Theobroma.  Overall this round was far less successful.  With the exception of the Lemoncello IPA and the Noble Rot the “beery” flavors kept overwhelming the rest of the experience for her.  We thought it was pretty interesting that she liked the Lemoncello since the hops were not only very prominent but also very catty which was a bit of a turn off for some.

After a good palate cleansing we headed into the home stretch which was an epic mix of big ABV’s and big flavors.  We started with a Founder’s Nemesis from 2010.  It was a long shot but I was banking on the paradox effect.  At 12% ABV and 100 IBU’s this beer is a bitter but balanced monster.  Turns out my instinct was right- Mikey liked it.  The aging may well have helped here since it really helped integrate the flavors.


Rachel with her favorite 5

I was feeling pretty good as we popped the Rochefort 10.  One of my all-time favorites I have used it before to convert self-professed beer haters.  Yet this time I was wrong.  She didn’t hate it but even with all the rich dried fruit flavors Rachel still tasted beer.  This brought us around to the closers.  We started with a 2012 Lost Abbey Deliverance which is aged in both bourbon and brandy barrels.  Now it may have been the cumulative effect of the previous rounds but for the first time Rachel moved from tolerating to actually liking a beer.  The flavors of the barrels definitely had a hand in this success.

A 2012 Bourbon County Stout closed us out and again, Rachel actually liked it.  The aging helped minimize any bitterness and the rich complexity won her over.


And the winner is…

By this point in the evening we were all plenty happy and everyone, especially Rachel, had a great time. And I think paying close attention to the flavors and listening to how she perceived them taught the rest of us a thing or two.  In retrospect we wish we had also included DFH Midas Touch, a Flemish Red and a completely oxidized treasure like Utopia or Baladin Xyauyu, but heck, nobody’s perfect.

Of course none of the beers she liked was of the sessionable variety.  In most cases you’d only want half the bottle and then only with food or as an after dinner treat.  Even so, we proved the point,  And while you will never see her with a pale ale in her hand, we are proud to say that Rachel no longer hates beer.

What about you?  Have you ever successfully challenged preconceptions or better yet converted a beer-hater?  If so, please share you story.


Recyling Beer

Its not what you think. In college I tried using beer to water a plant.  Apparently the plant did not appreciate the idea since it died.  And although I sometimes get desperate to find a topic to write about here there is just not much appeal in writing about recycling my beer into the toilet.  But it turns out there is another way to get the most out of beer that would otherwise go undrunk.

All whiskey starts its life as beer.  I knew it in a academic sense.  This past summer in Kentucky I got have close up encounters with huge cypress wood tanks of fermenting “distiller’s beer” which is a higher gravity, unclarified beer made without any hops or other additions that then gets distilled into white dog whiskey.   But until a couple of weeks ago, it never occurred to me that you could take an actual commercial beer and make whiskey with it.

Then I got a call to stop by and see Walt Palmer.  Walt, along with his wife, runs WP Palmer Distilling just a few blocks away from my house.  Although Liberty Gin is their flagship, Walt had started to dabble with making whiskey and plans to market Manayunk Moonshine.

Then he was given 10 kegs of coffee kolsch beer by a local brewery, St Benjamin.  WaltIMAG00741 was planning to make whiskey with it but needed some help in figuring out how to move the beer from the keg up ten feet in the air to fill his still.  With the help of a CO2 tank and a long piece of rubber tubing the problem was solved.

The process of making it was actually rather straight forward.  Once we pumped all the beer up and in it was then just a matter of time until the foam, which was taking up twice as much space as the liquid, could settle.



The next day, after taking a while to bring to a boil, the still started do its work.  The resulting first running clocked in at about 25% alcohol (the original beer was 4.8%).  After another run Walt hopes to wind up with a final product that is about double that strength which will then be aged with oak.  Look for an update in a future post.

IMG_1463 (002)

I have no idea what really to expect but look forward to seeing if any of the original coffee flavors make it through. A huge thank you to Walt for expanding my education!


“Exclusively Normative Activity”

Several years ago I was with a colleague at a party and asked if I could get him 0515ee2ca88543194691633a4c155ac8a8de29-wmanything from the bar.  He declined, stating that he didn’t drink.  I asked him, “Why?”  He paused for a moment then said, “Because I don’t like myself when I do.”

“Because I don’t like myself when I do.”  What an honest answer to a rather direct and inappropriately personal question.  To this day I’m not exactly sure why I asked it.  It could have easily been construed as a dick move.  Fortunately my friend was able to set this aside and still give a forthright answer.

This past summer, while attending the General Convention of the Episcopal Church his words came back to me.  After Thomas Palermo was tragically killed by a car driven by a very drunk Episcopal bishop, we spent a lot of time examining the relationship between alcohol and the Church. The special task force that was assembled put forth several resolutions, some of which went a bit too far in limiting what are often very positive and creative connections between the two.  But out of all the heartfelt and painful stories, all the expressions of grief, guilt and outrage, one phrase leapt out at me, namely that a big part of the problem was that drinking is an “exclusively normative activity.”

Exclusively normative activity?  What in the heck did that mean?  At first all I heard was jargon that I really didn’t understand.  That changed few nights later when most of the clergy attended their seminary alumni dinners.

The next day as I listened to various folks recount their evening what really caught my attention was not the fact that there was a lot of booze.  After all these are alumni gatherings and as such are not just celebratory reunions… they are also fundraisers.  Alcohol was an indispensable part of the asking equation.

Instead what caught my attention was how hard it was to find a non-alcoholic alternative.  One person said they had to get up and ask for a glass of water since there was only wine on each table in addition to the open bar.  At my gathering there were soft drinks at the bar and pitchers of water on the table, but even so, it was pretty clear that you were supposed to drink booze.

Then it hit me. Drinking on such occasions is not only accepted, it is expected.  And therein lies the problem.  If you choose not to drink, well then there must be something wrong with you.  You are marginalized and made to feel like an outsider.  In other words, drinking is exclusively normative.

In that moment I finally understood why I had so brashly asked my friend about tee-totaling.  It was a party but he wasn’t drinking.  And so, rather than just accepting his answer as totally valid, I made the operative assumption that there must be something wrong with him.

The problem is that I am hardly alone in my unconscious attitude.  If the Church is ever going to be the sanctuary it is supposed to be, we have to systematically become aware of, challenge, and dismantle the assumption that drinking is the only normal choice.  We have to get past the point where when we see someone who isn’t drinking we automatically wonder why they aren’t.

Recognizing and redressing this problem doesn’t mean we must therefore demonize booze.  But especially in the Church, we have to do better.  The Episcopal Church is founded on the principle of “Via Media.”  We must continue our commitment.  We must find a way to create some middle ground where everyone can feel comfortable and  regardless of whether you are imbibing or abstaining, no one stops to wonder what is wrong with you.